Special to The Gardner News
In a marathon school board meeting Aug. 23, the district approved masks for all, extended the superintendent’s contract , approved the budget, and two board members walked out, with at least one resigning.
Gardner-Edgerton 7th through 12th graders are required to wear a mask in school starting August 30.
School board members voted Monday night to extend the county mask requirement four to one. Board member Lana Sutton dissented.
Tresa Boden, member, and Shaun Carlisle, former board president, walked out and quit in the middle of the two plus hour discussion.
Rob Shippy, board president, said they would revisit the mask order at their September meeting, and they could potentially have a different opinion at that time.
“Other districts adopted masks for 7 through 12 grade,” he said. “They switched gears quickly after school started with the exception of Spring Hill next to us.”
Shippy said it was a high energy topic, but he wanted to reduce the number of quarantines.
Sutton said Grandstar Elementary had to be shut down due to cases, but everyone had been masked.
“It is gut wrenching for everyone, but I am a proponent for parent choice and won’t take it away,” she said.
Dr. Jody Marshall, human resources director, presented updated numbers of students with Covid cases and quarantines in the district.
Marshall said at the beginning of July the district had 0 cases until July 19. “It has picked up from there,” he said.
Marshall said the case numbers started going up significantly the week of August 16 with the start of school at seven positive cases and 11 quarantines.
“It was the worst week of absenteeism since the first week in January,” he said. “It has had a pretty significant impact on staffing.” Marshall said staff were receiving five additional paid sick leave days for Covid this school year.
“Over 16 percent teacher absences are COVID related and 25 didn’t have a sub to cover class,” he said. “We are seeing fatigue in buildings already.”
Shippy said what are the teachers giving up by not finding subs to cover for their classes.
Marshall said teachers were giving up their planning times. Marshall said they also had four positive staff incidents that required contact tracing of over 65 staff members.
“The average is 10 to 11 out for COVID,” he said. “In a few weeks if trend continues it could go from 4 to 500.”
Shippy said how was the district defining internal contacts versus outside contact incidents.
Marshall said there was some level of speculation, but they are seeing teams and classes positive and consulting with the Johnson County Health Department.
“We’re hitting teacher number shortages now that we hit last Spring,” he said.
Ryan Colston, supervisor of youth and community programs, said on August 9 fifteen elementary school students were positive, 50 were vaccinated and zero were unvaccinated; 12 middle school students were positive, 50 quarantined and 12 unvaccinated and now 38 in quarantine; and 14 high school students positive, 112 quarantined, 22 unvaccinated and 90 currently quarantined.
Colston said for elementary students they had determined 35 of the cases had had community exposure with 15 having classroom exposure.
Kristen Schultz, board member, said she wanted to clarify misconceptions and that the district doesn’t set the quarantines but they are set by the health department.
Robin Strentz, board member, said she had heard healthy people were being quarantined.
Elizabeth Holzschuh, Johnson County health department health and epidemiology doctor, said this was true. “If a positive individual has individuals around them unmasked they are sent home to quarantine even without symptoms,” she said.
Holzschuh said it can take two days to show symptoms.“We don’t know who is presymptomatic,” she said.
Holzschuh said the gold standard for quarantine is 14 days but if with testing they are negative after day six students can return on day eight.
Brandon Parks, board vice president, said when does the process begin again.
Holzschuh said students are quarantined when they are exposed.
Sutton said is there any data for showing exposure actually develops into COVID.
Holzschuh said they didn’t have that data yet. “Delta is very contagious,” she said. “The variant is 1000 times more virus load in people’s systems.”
Holzschuh said transmission this time around was scarier. “It is a different beast than last year,” she said.
Holzschuh said there was a shorter time from exposure to showing symptoms and by then entities are behind the curve.
Sutton said did they have data from summer camps and daycares yet.
Holzschuh said they were using data from the Johnson County Parks and Recreation Department’s summer camps.
“At camp where masks were optional there was one positive case per day at a rate mimicking school,” she said. “We didn’t see transmission in masked camps.”
Holzschuh said they didn’t see a lot of transmission in daycares.
“We rarely shut down last year,” she said. “But COVID is ripping through daycares the last two months, and we are seeing tremendous transmission in these daycares—it’s unlike anything we have ever seen.”
Sutton said what is the severity of cases.
Holzschuh said some were mild and some were severe cases.
“Unmasked increases cases substantially,” she said. “More kids allowed to be infected the number goes up and Children’s Mercy has more kids now hospitalized.”
Boden said she agreed Children’s Mercy was fuller than ever but it wasn’t just COVID cases. “It’s other viruses because the kids haven’t been exposed to anything at all being masked and home for a year,” she said. “They are sick with more than just COVID.”
Holzschuh said there had been a current spike of RSV cases in children over the Summer.
“It changed seasonality,” she said.
Holzschuh said RSV typically spikes in February, but they are having staffing issues at hospitals.
“Either way we are seeing this across the country of full hospitals,” she said.
Boden said she would like to know what the end game is for COVID. “Where is the end of this,” she said. “Everything is so confusing because the goals keep changing.”
Boden said how long were they going to continue to play this game. “Not everyone is going to get vaccinated,” she said. “Are we going to keep masked forever.”
Holzschuh said we are 18 months into the pandemic, and it wasn’t what she wanted to be doing.
“We have lost half a million citizens,” she said. “The transmission here is so high, and we are in trouble.”
Holzschuh said it was the same message as before—flattening the curve. “Right now the virus in the community is exceptionally high and hospitals are in trouble,” she said.
Boden said she wanted to know the numbers and percentages of kids positive and quarantining. “Give me some numbers,” she said. “People are done, there is no staff left and to me teachers are critical staff.”
Holzschuh said unmasked people spread the virus and masks are the best layers for COVID.
“This thing fires through closed classrooms very quickly,” she said.
Holzschuh said cases from June to now went up eight percent.
Marshall said they ask to require all staff to mask. “We have to have them in the building to serve these kids,” he said. “I worry about the trend continuing for the year.”
Schultz said are masked staff protected from unmasked people in the building.
Holzschuh said it was best if infected people wore masks. “Masks slow down the spread,” she said. “Per the CDC an unmasked person is considered a close contact to a masked person and it takes 15 minutes.”
Schultz said the biggest safety issue was keeping kids in school, and they all wanted kids in school.
Holzschuh said starting without mask mandates leads to high quarantine numbers. “It’s unsustainable,” she said.
Sutton said she understands the variant is contagious. “But the Johnson County dashboard shows kids in ICU is non-existent,” she said. “No child has died from the dashboard.”
Holzschuh said she was correct.
“I am looking for full disclosure and transparency,” Sutton said. “Numbers are important.”
Boden said the problem wasn’t a lack of beds but a lack of staff and she sees it in her hospital. “I’m kind of done with this,” she said. “Everyone is just exhausted and it is not for you to take care of my children.”
Boden said children were given to their parents by a gift from God.
“There is one body that put us on this Earth and has already stamped us for when our time is up,” she said. “It is not for me to decide to tell parents how to decide for their children, and I wish everyone would do the right thing and take care of each other but that is not going to happen.”
Holzschuh said the hospital numbers are more reliable than the county numbers and there were a multitude of pieces.
“Just looking at death and hospitalization is short sighted,” she said. “Long COVID is creating lasting symptoms in adults and kids in the community.”
Shippy said Holzschuh should explain why masked people are being quarantined. “Is it standard for the US or Johnson County because I think people think we made the standards,” he said.
Holzschuh said last year Johnson County was the only county quarantining masked people who had been exposed.
“We know masks work and it is important to keep kids in school,” she said. “Once the virus gets in the air can it be inhaled through the mask—benefits are if the infected wears it but can it still be spread.”
Holzschuh said mask choice was hard.
Parks said masks are beneficial because they prevent water droplets from going airborne.
“Your masks protects you and my masks protects me,” Holzschuh said.
Sutton said she wants kids in school getting an education.
“KCMO school district worked with their health department to lower quarantine numbers,” she said. “Is it possible to submit to daily COVID testing if showing no symptoms.”
Holzschuh said it absolutely was an option and they offer tests to schools. “However it is a time does lift on schools because of the staffing required,” she said.
Holzschuh said Blue Valley, Shawnee Mission and Olathe school districts had looked into it but decided it was too big of a lift for them. “But they are all masked,” she said.
Pam Stranahan, superintendent, said students still have to be separated from everyone else.
Sutton said it would put parental rights back into play.
Stranahan said it would put a great deal of liability on school nurses and their nursing licenses and logistically they would probably have to hire more staff to operate the tests.
Strentz said could students opt out.
Holzschuh said students could opt out of daily testing at school but they would have to stay home and quarantine.
Holzschuh said there was an application process for the grant that covers 100 percent of the cost through the Kansas Department of Health and Education.
“We can look into it and come back to the board to vote,” Stranahan said. “It is a larger process.”
Strentz said people are upset that the county wants to mask everyone. “They’re not going to do the test,” she said.
Stranahan said the district would have to have a person just for COVID tracing.
Schultz said the district was already having trouble with staffing.
Stranahan said no one was doing daily testing.
“We have to put it together to put logistics and go back and refigure how to house kids for testing,” she said.
Parks said last year they had fewer issues with kids quarantine because kids had remote learning but this year the state had taken that option away.
Stranahan said she hadn’t found anyone doing testing on school sites. “There is a liability insurance issue with testing,” she said.
Shippy said the district’s attorney said home rule may apply, but it doesn’t release them from accountability with the county.
“We can opt out of the elementary program by the county, but it won’t relieve us from the consequences,” he said. “I’m not willing to place the school district liable and at risk just because the neighboring (Spring Hill) district did.”
Parks said there were a lot of kids in quarantine right now, but he wanted to keep kids in school as much as possible.
“Only thing that allows us in the building is to go back to masks,” he said. “If a parent is truly seeing a detrimental effect of masks on their child they can approach a doctor to get a medical opinion because we have to have documentation.”
Parks said he didn’t think it would hurt to look into Sutton’s suggestion of daily on site testing.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” he said.
Parks said in the meantime he didn’t see a good ending without masks.
Schultz said they were the only county school district not masking. “It is not a popular decision, but I look to the professionals and value their opinions.”
Parks said even if they disagree with the experts they have to follow their quarantine rules. “No one likes wearing masks,” he said. “We can’t ignore the local governing body and the only thing that makes sense is going back to masks for the time being.”
Schultz said looking at the numbers it was the only safety mitigation the district had left.
Sutton said for every expert there is another expert on the other side.
Shippy said he didn’t want to put 7 through 12th grade students back in masks. “The goal is to keep kids in school,” he said. “ we want kids in school.”
Eleven parents spoke during public comments stating they didn’t want forced mask mandates because masks were hurting their kids, and it should be their parental choice to vaccinated their children.
One parent and daycare owner spoke with Kansas Senator Cindy Holscher for masks mandates and vaccines.
Parents and children also held a protest with signs outside the district building before the meeting.
School board members held a brief budget hearing for the revenue neutral tax rate required by the State of Kansas’s Senate Bill 13.
Jeremy McFadden, director of business and finance, said a notice had been published in The Gardner News stating the district would be over the state’s required revenue neutral rate.
McFadden said the General Fund will be 20 mills for the next two years and the general fund exceeds the RNR.
Parks said they had lowered the overall budget and were in a better place than last year.
A one year extension was approved for Pam Stranathan, superintendent. Information will be updated as it is received.